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Upton stays behind to work on glove
by Jim Callis
DETROIT--Yuniesky Betancourt led off the Futures Game with a slow roller to shortstop. B.J. Upton charged, gloved the ball, quickly transferred it to his right hand and threw a laser across the diamond to beat the speedy Betancourt by a step.
If only defense always came so easy to Upton.
Upton was the best prospect at the 2004 Futures Game. Most of the other big names at the showcase since have graduated to the majors, including Rickie Weeks, David Wright, Jeff Francis and Justin Morneau among them. Fifteen of the players selected for the 2004 game were in the majors a year later, and nine others had enjoyed at least a cup of coffee this season.
But not Upton. The Devil Rays gave him his first big league promotion last August, and though he became the first teenager to homer in the majors since Adrian Beltre and Aramis Ramirez in 1998, he couldn't shake a reputation for erratic defensive play.
Upton made seven errors in 16 games at shortstop, and manager Lou Piniella clearly wasn't comfortable playing him at his natural position. Upton saw nearly as much time at DH and third base.
The Devil Rays have no doubts that Upton will be an impact hitter at the major league level. But they wanted him to start this season in Triple-A to hone his defense, and he has remained in Durham all year, making him eligible for a return trip to the Futures Game in July.
He says all the right things but has an air of resignation about him.
"I've just got to go out and play," he says. "I've got to do it every day and take it in stride. That's what I'm doing. It was maybe frustrating for the first day or so, but it's out of my hands."
Wants To Stay Put
Upton's hands aren't a problem. Neither are his arm strength or range.
But he has yet to prove he can consistently throw on target to first base.
Upton made 20 errors in 29 games in April. He has been steadier since, with 10 miscues in his last 59 games before the Futures Game, but he still shared the minor league lead in errors.
Upton has the athleticism to play anywhere on the diamond and the bat to be an all-star at any position. But he doesn't want an expedited trip to Tampa Bay if it means he has to leave shortstop.
"I've been playing there my whole life," says Upton, whose brother Justin was the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft by the Diamondbacks and has similar tools and concerns about his defense--and who was in the stands in Detroit to see B.J. play. "I know some people have doubts, and I don't like that. I take that personally. I want to show I can play there."
Upton says he takes extra grounders every day, and he has focused on trying to catch balls farther away from his body to allow him to make better throws. Footwork is another priority, as is maintaining his focus on routine plays.
Yet progress has come slower than expected. When starting shortstop Alex Gonzalez went on the disabled list with a neck strain July 3, Tampa Bay bypassed Upton and promoted Fernando Cortez from Double-A.
Upton, who was hitting .292/.377/.436 with nine homers, 43 RBIs and 27 steals at Durham, could use a little more discipline at the plate. But it's his glove that's keeping him in the minors.
Scouts remain split on whether Upton should remain at shortstop. We contacted four who have seen him play this season, and two thought he should stay put, one would move him to third base and one would move him to center field.
"I think his problems are mostly because he doesn't play hitters the right way," says one scout who calls Upton one of the most talented players he has seen in 25 years of scouting. "With a below-average runner, he'll get the ball in the hole and rush his throw when he doesn't have to. Then he'll play deep on guys who can run. He just doesn't know where to play guys, but he's too good of an athlete to not be able to play there."
The scouts who would change Upton's position say they've seen enough of him at shortstop and would just worry about getting his bat into the major league lineup.
"He hasn't shown me he can consistently catch the ball and make accurate throws to first base," one scout says. "He can't play shortstop in the majors on an everyday basis without driving his manager crazy.
"It's taking away from his bat, too," says another. "That's the thing he brings to the table. It's time to start focusing on that."
It's his glove that's under the microscope. And for now, the dismal Devil Rays haven't seen enough improvement to promote him, making him the most talented player in the Futures Game for the second year in a row.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.